Rome (AFP) - They come to bless those suffering the most from the novel coronavirus. And then, more and more often, Italy's priests die themselves.
The diocese of Bergamo northeast of Milan appears to have been ravaged the most by the stealth killer.
At least 10 of its priests have died of COVID-19, the Catholic daily Avvenire reported Thursday.
The deaths, whether of priests or members of their communities, are "so numerous that it is difficult to count", the paper wrote.
Five more fatalities were registered in the city of Parma. Still more virus-related deaths emerged among priests in Brescia, Cremona and the northern industrial hub of Milan itself.
All these parishes are clustered in Italy's north, the virus's target from the day the Catholic country's first death was reported four weeks ago.
More than 3,400 Italians have died from the virus since then.
Italy has taken over the grim title of being the global epicentre of the pandemic from China, where COVID-19 was first reported in late December.
- Dying more than doctors -
Like doctors, Italy's priests come in contact with the disease's most serious cases.
And like doctors, priests are known to congregate among themselves in close quarters, creating the perfect conditions for contagion.
A count by Italy's ANSA news agency on Thursday put the number of medics killed by the disease at 13.
Figures reported by Italian media suggest the death toll among priests is higher. At least 18 priests have been reported killed.
"Dressed in a mask, a cap, gloves, a robe and protective glasses, we priests walk around the halls like zombies," Father Claudio del Monte told Italy's Adnkronos news agency.
Del Monte has a parish in Bergamo, a walled, hillside city of 120,000, with square towers and slanted terracotta roofs familiar to tourists of many scenic Italian towns.
Its province is now Italy's worst-affected. With 4,634 infections as of Friday, it had piled up 11 percent of all of Italy's cases.
Its population accounts for just 0.2 percent of Italy's total.
Bergamo has so many dead that army trucks had to deliver supplies of freshly-made wooden coffins Thursday.
It has so many dead that mortuaries can no longer hold them all.
"We no longer know where to put the dead," the bishop of Bergamo, Francesco Beschi, told the Vatican News site.
Standing and looking at the coffins makes him feel "very heavy", Beschi said.
- Dying of zeal -
Like all the other victims, the clergymen are buried without ceremony.
Funerals, along with weddings, have been banned for over a week to stem contagion. They may not be allowed again for many more weeks or months.
"It is painful to see the priests fall sick," Enrico Salmi, the bishop of Parma, told the Avvenire.
"Sometimes it happens (to them) out of pastoral zeal. They enter the intensive care unit where, naturally, no one is supposed to go."
Touched by the plight of the priests of Bergamo, Pope Francis placed a call Wednesday to Beschi, the parish bishop.
Pope Francis was "very impressed by the suffering of the many dead," Beschi said in a statement.
The Argentine-born pontiff has repeatedly called on priests to spend more time visiting the sick.